Time for a true confession: I love horror movies. Some recent favorites are the films of Guillermo del Toro—Pan’s Labyrinth, The Orphanage, and The Devil’s Backbone.When I saw that Guillermo Del Toro was working on a trilogy of vampire novels and that his publisher was offering review copies, I was intrigued and decided to give it a try.
The novel opens with a plane that has mysteriously stopped on the runway after landing in New York City. Everyone on the plane appears to be dead. There are no weapons, no obvious wounds, just bodies. Eph Goodweather of the Centers for Disease Control is called in to investigate. It turns out there are four survivors, but none of them can recall what happened. The bodies of the dead are taken to various morgues around the city for autopsy. And then night falls, the bodies disappear, and the survivors start acting strange.
Although vampirism has long been associated with disease, this book really focuses on that element. The eradication of the disease that leads to vampirism is a scientific pursuit. Even the old-fashioned vampire hunter, Abraham Setrakin, recognizes that the old tools, such as sunlight and garlic, are useful for scientific reasons. This approach gave the old villains freshness, and I really enjoyed the scenes where the medical examiners cut into the bodies of their victims and tried to understand the physical changes they found. It took me right back to Dana Scully on the X Files. What would she have made of the lacerations on the arteries that were too fine to have been done with a needle? Bodies that show no signs of decomposition? Core temperatures that won’t go down? And a milky white substance that pours out of the bodies instead of blood?
Other intriguing elements included the scenes showing the survivors of the crash trying to figure out what’s going on with their own bodies. Why are they losing color? Hearing the blood moving through the veins of everyone around them? In this world, becoming a vampire is not about gaining power. It’s about losing power over your own body, and it is frightening. The descriptions of the transformations put me in the characters’ heads and made me feel their fear. I only wish the authors had spent more time showing characters dealing with this change. With its huge cast, the story often jumped around too much, sometimes not even spending a page with any particular group. It’s only when they settle in one place for an extended period that the suspense is really given time to build. And when it’s given that time, it’s fabulous.
In general, I liked the story, but some elements were just too unbelievable. For instance, if you found a plane full of bodies and a mysterious box in the cargo hold that was coffin-shaped and filled with dirt, might you think of vampires? Wouldn’t it cross someone’s mind? How about when the coffin disappears? When the bodies all have wounds to the neck or the femoral artery? When the bodies have been exsanguinated? When they disappear? I think even the ultra-rational Dana Scully would have mentioned a vampire cult at this point. But not a single person mentions vampires. We have an omniscient narrator who gets inside several people’s heads, and it doesn’t cross anyone’s mind. I can suspend my disbelief pretty far. I’m all aboard for corpses walking around Manhattan. But not a single mention of vampires, even as a joke, for well over 100 pages when this kind of crazy stuff is going on? I do not believe that.
Then there are times when I felt like the authors were trying too hard to demonstrate their cleverness, often through crazy, unnecessary similes: “His mobile phone started vibrating, skittering up against the take-out cartons like a hungry silver beetle.” And then on the very next page,“Eph’s mobile started vibrating again, crabbing across the tabletop like the chattering gag teeth his uncles used to give him for Christmas,” And then there’s my personal favorite, which refers to the white substance that the medical examiner took from the bodies: “He had stored it in the back of one of the specimen coolers, stashing it behind some glassware like the last good dessert inside a community refrigerator.” Are the authors trying to be funny? In the end, these bizarre flourishes kept me from getting fully immersed and kept the story from achieving its potential. And so Dracula and Salem’s Lot remain, for me, at the top of the heap among vampire novels.